Tennessee's Welfare Drug Testing Program Continues To Fail

By McCarton Ackerman 10/12/15

Why do states keeping throwing money at testing programs that are clearly failures?

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In a true sign of irony, Tennessee’s first year of drug testing welfare recipients found rates of drug use that are far lower than the general population.

Only 55 people, or 0.19%, tested positive for drugs out of an applicant pool of 28,559. Thirty-two of those individuals were denied benefits for failing to complete the state’s mandatory rehab process for those who test positive. Only 468 (1.6%) of all welfare recipients in the state answered positively to one of the three screening questions used to determine potential drug use.

Approximately 9.4% of all Americans engage in some form of drug use, so it appears that these tests are serving the opposite purpose of their intention.

Although Tennessee officials said the tests only cost $11,000, that still comes out to $200 per failed drug test. It also doesn’t factor in the cost of reimbursing individuals who passed their tests and staff hours for both processing the new application materials and managing the logistics of the testing.

However, there were clear signs that the program was doomed from the start. In August 2014, only one person tested positive out of the first 812 who applied for welfare benefits when the program was launched. Four others were also denied aid for refusing to submit to drug testing. The 0.12% positive rate was far less than the reported 8% of state residents who use illegal drugs.

Similar programs throughout the country have proven to be equally ineffective. Utah spent $30,000 on a welfare drug testing program which found only 12 drug users, while a similar program in Florida ended up costing the state money when testing reimbursement costs for those who passed were factored in. Mississippi’s welfare drug testing program recorded just two positive results in its first four months, while Arizona only found three positive tests after screening 142,000 welfare recipients.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.